‘Where Strong Girls Are Forged’
Tools & Tiaras teaches women about career opportunities in construction
In the 23 years that Judaline Cassidy has worked as a plumber, she has seen one consistent trend: the lack of women in the construction industry. This inspired her to educate girls and women on career opportunities that can be economic game-changers, jobs in which they can earn $100,000 annually without overtime and without a college degree. Her solution: a nonprofit called Tools & Tiaras.
Cassidy, who founded Tools & Tiaras and serves as Director, conceived the vision for the nonprofit while speaking in California at the 2017 MAKERS Conference, an annual gathering that tells inspiring stories of today’s trailblazing women. “I pondered, ‘What if we had an organization that does what they do for girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and coding for girls in construction?’ ” Cassidy recalls.
“I was hesitant to start it because I knew it would be a lot of work on top of the jobs I already have, but I knew if we give a girl a tool and a tiara, she gains confidence, independence and power,” Cassidy says. “The universe told me that I had to do this.”
Goals and Challenges
Part of the organization’s initiative is to get girls excited and interested in the mechanical, industrial, technical and trades fields. Cassidy has tagged it MITT with a motto of “Where Strong Girls Are Forged.”
She says the ultimate goal of the young organization is to positively impact the lives of women from a variety of life circumstances—and to help women who are single mothers, coming out of a divorce or who are transitioning out of foster care find a way to make a living.
“When I’m speaking at an event and I tell women what I earn as an immigrant plumber without a college degree, they are shocked,” Cassidy says. “The opportunities are amazing in the fields of construction. If more women get empowered economically, it will change a lot for them and for the generations to come. We can even avoid homelessness for some of these women.”
Cassidy says that she has been thinking about ways to increase the number of women in construction since she learned that women make up less than 4 percent of all construction trade workers in the United States, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research Tradeswomen Survey, published in 2015.
That number has remained static for more than 40 years. “I’ve been trying to determine how we can move this number. In the union that I’m a member of, women come in and they leave,” she says.
After the MAKERS Conference in mid-2017, Cassidy says she made up her mind to get started and began designing her logo (a tiara with tools incorporated into it). Creating a name was another challenge because she wanted the organization to speak to people. “It was hard to explain to people why a woman should have both a tiara and tools, but women can be both feminine and strong,” she says.
She launched the organization solely funding it with her own money. “I didn’t ask for help or tell people because I didn’t want to be discouraged by anyone,” she says. “I knew there was a lot to do to get it started, but I navigated how to establish a 501(c)(3) despite all of these things being brand new to me. I love solving puzzles and figuring out how to get things done. I like that about plumbing and really anything in life.”
When her fellow tradeswomen found out what she was doing, many joined her and asked to help.
Her female colleagues pitched in by helping with the organization’s initial objective: hosting workshops for women and girls. The first event focused on plumbing, specifically on how to install a bathroom faucet.
“I like to make it fun and interactive,” Cassidy says. “They can ask questions and touch products. The first one was a big hit. The women felt very accomplished because now they can change a faucet without paying so much.”
Cassidy says the younger girls in the classes—they can participate as young as 6—get hands-on experience in the different monthly projects, which include welding, tiling, masonry or whatever Cassidy can get volunteers to lead. The organization does not have a dedicated space but uses a variety of spaces made available to them, from church halls to private businesses. “We are a no-frills operation,” she says.
Workshop participants are in awe that these tradeswomen exist, Cassidy says, and that’s part of what she wants—to demonstrate how important these jobs are and how they will never go away. All of the comforts people enjoy daily are the result of people who do these jobs—from accessing water for bathing to ensuring that the lights turn on, she says.
Coming to America
Cassidy learned her plumbing trade in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago. She would have liked to have attended a university, but growing up with her great-grandmother, she did not have the money to pay for college. Instead, she applied to learn a trade. She developed her taste for construction while in school as one of the first girls allowed into technical drawing, learning how to read blueprints. She wound up in that class, she says, because she was so bad at home economics and typing that the teacher kicked her out.
She came to the U.S. when she was 19 and worked a variety of jobs before one of her neighbors helped her get a job as a plumber. She fell in love with the country and eventually became a U.S. citizen.
“It was very important to me to become a citizen,” she says. “This is a place where I became a woman and a mother. I learned to excel at my craft. I was a poor little girl growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, and despite some of the bad things I’ve experienced in life, I’ve experienced many great things, too.”
Cassidy still loves her home country, but she’s also fully invested in life here. “The lifestyle I’ve been able to have with a house and a car is because I am in the United States. For me and most immigrants in construction, we love this country and we love being part of it. Immigrants built this country and we want to continue being part of it,” she says. “Trinidad and Tobago will always be my home, but everything I’ve achieved in life, I’ve achieved it here. When people come to my house, everything is American. Even the chairs outside are red, white and blue. It’s a place that I love and want to give back; this organization is my way of giving back.”
As Tools & Tiaras continues its work, it faces some growing pains. The nonprofit needs a full-time director to write grant applications, organize events and handle all of the required daily tasks. Currently, Cassidy and a few volunteers operate the organization. Since Cassidy also serves as an officer in her trade union, as well as serving on the union examining board, her time is spread thin.
In addition to the monthly workshops, the organization is hosting a hands-on summer day camp during July for girls ages 6 to 19 to learn construction trades from women in the industry. Cassidy ultimately would like to see the organization allow chapters to be set up across the country and even globally. She gets frequent requests for the program to expand.
“We want to share it so we can actually increase the percentage of women in the construction industry by exposing young women to what is available,” she says.
Many of the trade unions will pay for college through scholarships so workers can get paid while they learn and have no college debt. “I’m seeing many people who left professional jobs because of the stress, and this industry allows for instant access to a good income. My daughter is 27 and is a sheet metal worker in the air-conditioning industry. That’s how much I believe in the trades. The infrastructure in America is falling apart, and we need people to do these jobs. My job is to inspire, expose and mentor people to come into these trades,” Cassidy says.